In Health Care Reform, Massachusetts Shows How Not To Do It

UHCEF Article of Interest

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Sandy Eaton, RN

Labor Notes (click here for original article)

Massachusetts pays the most in the nation for its health care, and yet it’s plagued by an ongoing crisis of access, affordability, and quality. Although our experiment in health care reform already has deep problems, policy wonks influencing the country’s health care debate tout Massachusetts as the model for universal health care nationwide. . . .

Leaving the bloated insurance industry in place perpetuates the pain and cost of the current health care system.

Massachusetts pays the most in the nation for its health care, and yet it’s plagued by an ongoing crisis of access, affordability, and quality. Although our experiment in health care reform already has deep problems, policy wonks influencing the country’s health care debate tout Massachusetts as the model for universal health care nationwide.

If Massachusetts is a model, it’s a model of what not to do.

When the legislature passed “shared responsibility” legislation two years ago, nearly every suit in the state’s health care industry celebrated. The concept grew from an October 2005 assembly convened by the Blue Cross-Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts that made a bald assertion: there was no way to achieve universal coverage in Massachusetts without an “individual mandate,” the enforceable legal requirement that everyone have health insurance.

OFF THE TABLE

The problem was that the assembly was not allowed to consider Canadian-style single-payer health care—which would eliminate private insurance companies—as an option. It was off the table.

So a new bureaucracy was established, the Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector Board, with broad powers to set rates, approve cut-rate private policies, and define affordability.

Subsidies are offered on a sliding scale for those earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty line (about $63,000 for a family of four). Those earning below the line are covered free.

The tangle of private insurance companies, with their expensive bureaucracies and profits, remains in place.

The only new source of revenue for these subsidies is the $295 per employee fee paid anually by employers of 11 or more workers who fail to show that they are making a “fair and reasonable” contribution to their employees’ coverage.

The tangle of private insurance companies, with their expensive bureaucracies and profits, remains in place.

Given these constraints, how does the system measure up?

Access. The ability to get care has expanded for some, with an increase in Medicaid enrollment for some of the poorest. But this comes at the expense of many, particularly undocumented workers and their families, who in the past had depended on the uncompensated care pool, or free-care pool, through community health centers and safety-net hospitals.

The pressure is now on to deny free care to low-income immigrants who would be eligible for subsidized programs if their papers were in order.

Out of a population of six million, a quarter of a million residents remain uninsured. About 60,000 have been granted waivers as unable to afford even the subsidized plans.

Others fall through the cracks of a complex bureaucracy, and an unknown number simply defy the system and refuse to fill out the additional pages of questions about their insurance status with their state income tax form.

Affordability. For many, paying for health care without the threat of bankruptcy or giving up other necessities of life remains impossible. Governments and many employers are staggering, too.

Rising costs for public employees’ and retirees’ health insurance has led to round after round of service cutbacks, affecting every resident who uses public services. Attempts at cost-shifting have provoked strikes by teachers and turnovers in city halls.

Employers successfully pressure the Connector Board to keep copays and deductibles high in the subsidized health plans. This keeps those covered by commercial plans from switching to the public ones.

But ironically, those high deductibles and copays are not counted when calculating who qualifies for taxpayer subsidies.

A diabetic stay-at-home mom on the subsidized plan, for example, pays $110 a month for insurance. But the array of drugs and procedures she requires and the limits on her coverage leave her with copayments of about $165 a month.

Quality. The new system doesn’t seem to have improved patient outcomes. A recent study showed that 45,000 patients are injured and 2,000 patients die in Massachusetts each year from hospital-acquired infections and accidents. That’s six patients dying each day.

And hospital executives fiercely resist steps to improve quality. In July they blocked a bill—again—to establish minimum nurse-to-patient ratios. Such ratios have made California hospitals much safer.

STILL NEED SINGLE PAYER

In July Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy announced a bipartisan initiative to achieve “universal health care” quickly, in the first days of a new administration. And then came Health Care for America Now, a new 80-member coalition that includes the AFL-CIO, SEIU, and AFSCME. HCAN champions a system—similar to Massachusetts’s—that would leave the insurance companies at their troughs.

During the Great Depression, FDR was elected with a mandate for change, but the specifics were vague and the direction of the new administration nebulous. Like today, an upsurge of grassroots action was needed to set a progressive agenda.

It took 3,000 locals, for example, ignoring AFL President Bill Green’s aversion to “the dole,” as he called it, to establish unemployment insurance.

This may well prove to be just as fluid a moment in history. Nothing of consequence—like universal, single-payer health insurance—will succeed without solid grassroots organizing that sets the agenda for the next administration.

Sandy Eaton is Region 5 president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association and vice chair of the Massachusetts Campaign for Single Payer Health Care.